Bryant Terry is an inspiration for all of us to take action.
The food activist, eco-chef, and author is doing more than his part to help make a more just, healthy, and sustainable food system. I first came across Bryant’s work when I moved to the Bay Area and he had just published first book, Grub. As I got more involved in the local food scene, I noticed his book popped up seemingly everywhere I turned. Reading that book was a big piece of my personal journey to become a more conscientious cook and a more eco-friendly eater and I’ve followed his work ever since. Though I don’t personally eat a vegan diet, I find that recipes like Bryant’s make eating meatless all that much easier and delicious.
He is this month’s TasteMaker because we can all learn something from where he’s been and the work he’s doing. He’s now splitting his time to spend more time with his daughter and she has become his muse for his work as you can tell from his interview below. Here’s a bit about Bryant and his latest project, but be sure to also check out his new web series, Urban Organic, and his latest book from which he generously shared this recipe for Chewy Lemon-Coconut Cookies with Lemon Icing.
Q: Tell us how you ended up on your current path.
A: In the late 90s I was working on a PhD in History at NYU, and learned more about the programs started by the Black Panthers in the 60s and 70s addressing hunger and food insecurity. Discovering the free for children program and the grocery giveaways made me realize that the larger social justice movement was remiss if it did not focus on ensuring that the most vulnerable communities had access to healthy, safe, and affordable food. I decided to go to culinary school and start a not-for-profit organization that used cooking as a tool to train young people to be food justice activists. I met Anna Lappé the coauthor of my first book, Grub, in the spring of 2003. Three years later our book was published. Since then I’ve been writing book as well as doing presentations at colleges and community events.
Q: You are often labeled a food activist and eco-chef. Could you elaborate on what each of those titles mean to you?
A: When I first started working on food issues I called myself an eco-chef because I felt that food was a powerful tool to help people become more aware of the interconnection of all living beings. I believed that this understanding would move people to make decisions as eaters that would be in the best interest of the environment, animals, and small farmers. I consider myself a food justice activist because I see my books as organizing and base-building tools for the movement to create a more just, healthy, and sustainable food system. As I write in my latest book, The Inspired Vegan:
We can talk about local, seasonal, and sustainable for days, but if people don’t feel connected to this type of food, why would they fight for it? In my mind, building a community around the table and strengthening the food justice movement must go hand in hand. When you consider that strategizing, educating, and organizing for many social movements throughout the twentieth century took place in people’s homes, it seems appropriate that the food revolution will find its spark in people’s home kitchens.
Q: What are simple actions all of us can take to improve the food situation in our local communities?
A: Growing food at home, in a community garden, or at an urban farm. Shopping at a farmer’s market, or joining a CSA. Making home-cooked meals with family and friends using fresh, seasonal produce. Every small step that we take toward growing local food systems adds up.
Q: You’ve had such a diverse career path to date. What would say is your current mission and focus?
A: I’m focusing on spending as much time with my daughter as possible until she starts pre-school. I have found it challenging balancing the work of parenting with professional work, but I will never get these early moments back. Being a parent has helped me value child-rearing as work in a way that I could never have imagined. It’s the most important work.
Q: How do you use food to get your message across?
A: I’m interested in helping shift people’s attitudes, habits, and politics of food, and I think the table is the most powerful place to catalyze that process. My guiding mantra for over a decade has been to start with the visceral, move the the cerebral, and end at the political. From my experience starting with politics and heady intellectual ideas does not resonate with everyone. In fact, that approach often turns people off. But starting with delicious food can move people to learn about food politics and eventually be more active as community members, consumers, and citizens.
Q: Now that your family is growing how have your views on food changed, if at all?
A: I feel more committed to this work than I ever have. I used to present an abstract legacy argument — we need to create a more just, healthy, and sustainable food system for future generations — but not I feel like I am literally working to create a better food system for my daughter.
Q: Your latest book, The Inspired Vegan, does a beautiful job of presenting food worth sharing and weaving together food, music, film, and other art forms. What do you see as the connection between food and other art forms?
A: As much as I can through text and photos, I want my books to mirror the way that I would like to see folks gathering around the stove and the table. We don’t cook or eat in a vacuum. Most people listen to music when they are cooking and eating. Folks typically engage in stimulating conversations about films, politics, and pop culture. And people are often building community around the table. I want people to get back to that way of connecting around food.
Q: What is your fave recipe to cook for your family? And what is your go-to comfort dish?
A: My go-to comfort food at the moment is my 2-Rice Congee recipe from my latest book, The Inspired Vegan. It’s a simple porridge to which I can add accompaniments to make it more flavorful. It is an easy dish that my daughter can have too. She likes it when I add a little shoyu and pureed spinach to hers. But my favorite recipe these days is my Chewy Lemon-Coconut Cookies with Lemon Icing.
Q: What inspires you? How do you cultivate your creativity?
A: 4:20, of course, as my daughter was born on April 20th.
Q: What would be your advice for people looking to change the way they eat?
A:Try not to spend too much energy focusing on some imagined result, and be present with the journey.
TasteMakers is a monthly interview series with people I’ve met who have inspired me and a chance for them to share some of their wisdom.